Up&Ap: Michael Joseph on meeting his greatest professional success at 55 years

By Paula Nasser

Michael Joseph is a bundle of energy. He’s survived a helicopter crash, been paragliding at the age of 70, and recovered from a life threatening illness in a record time. As he says, he is a ‘bit of a maverick’ and believes that everything on earth is possible. He built Argentina’s first mobile network in the 1990s; created and expanded Safaricom from a company with five employees in a rented apartment in Nairobi to the most successful and profitable company in East Africa with over 4,500 employees; and led the creation of our M-Pesa, the world’s most successful mobile transfer service.

He’s far from being a diplomatic person; he hates bureaucracy and social events. There are no shades of grey with Michael, and you know exactly when he likes something or not. It’s with this intensity that he makes the impossible possible and leads massive teams of people – who mostly become friends and fans.

(TOP: Michael Joseph, who served as Safaricom CEO till mid 2011).

He went to Kenya following his career dream to be a CEO, and stayed there following his heart – he loves the country, its wildlife and its people. He has a house in northern Kenya, where he wants to spend the rest of his life. It was in Kenya that he met his fourth wife, Sian, and it was there too that he achieved the most remarkable highlights of his career, at the age of 55, when many are thinking about retirement.

He loves nature, sailing, reading, diving and wine. He also runs and is training to be the oldest man to finish the Lewa marathon in Kenya. He’s passionate about making people’s lives better, and he truly believes that this comes before making money.

Michael has stepped down from the role of Vodafone’s Global M-Pesa director to dedicate more time to his recent appointment as Chairman of Kenya Airways, a role he accepted because he “couldn’t say no” to the request from the Kenyan president. But he remains with us on the board of Vodacom and Safaricom and as an M-Pesa adviser.

His adventurous style is very inspiring as he makes you realise work doesn’t need to be boring and that leadership can manifest in so many different ways. Here’s Michael’s way – enjoy!

Question: You were Safaricom CEO for 10 years and created the world’s most successful mobile money transfer service. How did everything start?

Michael Joseph (MJ): It was 1999, I was at one of Vodafone’s meetings and I was sitting next to a guy who told me we have just concluded our joint venture in Kenya. I said – I’d like to go to Kenya! Next day I receive a phone call from Vodafone asking if I’d like to go to Kenya – I was one of the only applicant for the job, at that time nobody else would like to go! . I was CTO in Hungary at that time, and really liked the country and the culture – I tried to be CEO there but they wouldn’t give me the job, as they needed someone with more finesse and diplomatic skills, and I am definitely not a diplomatic person. So I went to Kenya and threw myself into the unknown, which was great. No one expected us to do well and the business turned out to be tremendously successful. There was no one there to tell you what to do, it was very decentralised. We started with a team of five in a three-bedroom flat that we rented in Nairobi.

Q: How did you grow the company from five to 4,500 employees in only ten years?

MJ: We were fortunate and lucky enough to make very wise decisions very early on. There was no marketing research at the time and we managed to make the right decisions at the right time.

Q: Was M-Pesa one of those decisions?

MJ: No, M-Pesa only came seven years later. We made decisions that today are very well known but at that time were very challenging – things like: we had 24/7 free customer service; we started with pre-paid instead of post-paid plans; we started with very low cost phones… the competitors – who were there first – laughed at and didn’t believe we would make money that way. But the most important thing for our success was making sure we were a truly Kenyan company and were seen as such. We never changed the name of the company and its colours are the colours of the national flag. We also did a lot of corporate social responsibility, but instead of doing the big usual sponsorship activities, we decided to do a lot of very small things in the villages like putting beds in orphanages, painting a wall, clearing plant pots in a small village park… those were very low cost activities – some of them £100, £50, £10 – but that meant a lot for the people so Safaricom become known as the Kenyan company that supported the family. That was what made us a truly Kenyan company and so successful.

Q: Was innovation also part of Safaricom’s success?

MJ: Definitely. When we introduced M-Pesa it wasn’t my idea, it was Nick Hughes’ who at that time was Vodafone’s Head of Global Payments. He came to see me with this idea of a mobile microfinance product and asked me if I’d like to test it in Kenya. I always had the philosophy of innovation; I wanted Safaricom to be seen as an innovative company, so I set up an innovation team and told the guys, ‘I don’t care what you do, I want four innovations a year’. We used to have an Innovation committee, and every time someone had a good idea, we’d do three meetings, one to present the idea, if it was good, the team would develop a bit more, we do a second one, test it and third meeting to decide if we launch it or not – M-Pesa was created in this way. We made mistakes, some ideas didn’t work out, but we always took the risk when we believed in something. M-Pesa was one of those cases. In the beginning people said it wouldn’t work, it would be too costly and that we shouldn’t be doing it. I just said I don’t care, it sounds like a great idea, and we are doing it!

Q: Did you know it would work or did you just follow your gut?

MJ: I did not know, I had no idea it would be so successful. I just thought it sounded like a great idea, and it was in line with my philosophy of being innovative and doing something that might help people. Of course I didn’t know it would have the scale and impact that it has today, nobody knew. We went through a lot of drama to make it successful, we spent a lot of money and we took a lot of risks. If it didn’t work, I’d probably have been fired.

Q: How did you manage to have one million M-Pesa customers by the end of year one?

MJ: The day we launched I asked the team how many customers they expected to have by the end of the year and they said 320,000. I said, ‘you must be joking; we will have one million customers!’ This was March 2007. They told me it was impossible, I said it is not impossible! I pushed them like anything, I drove them, and every single day I went down to the office and asked: how many customers did you sign yesterday?

Q: What are the biggest mistakes you’ve made in your life?

MJ: I made some missteps in my life… I’ve been married four times… I don’t actually think they were mistakes… Divorce is always a difficult, sad and tragic thing to do but if I look back I think I had an extraordinary life. I think if you live your life properly, you live in a kind of spiral, sometimes you feel like you have gone back to where you started. But if you have learned something along the way, and you apply that knowledge, you are actually on another level when you go back to the place you thought you have started from. Every decision I made, every step I’ve taken, even though they seem not to be right, when I look back today they all made sense. When I moved to America, I decided to start a company, invested all my money in it and lost everything in one year. I had two choices: go back to South Africa where I knew I could get a job, where my family and friends were or stay in America and try to make a life there. I decided to stay (laughs) – which seemed to be a real disaster – but that was how I got a job by accident in the mobile industry.

Q: Can you tell us a bit more about that?

MJ: I saw this job ad on the newspaper for an international project manager. Even though I was a Telecom engineer I’ve never worked in the mobile industry and didn’t know anything about it. I went to the library to get books and magazines to read and went for the interview. The guy who interviewed me had just come back from a trip in South Africa so all he talked about was his safari in South Africa and then he gave me the job (laughs). And that’s how I started in the mobile industry…

Q: Thanks to the wildlife?!

MJ: Yes (laughs). And this is an example of how circumstances in life lead you to certain things; if I hadn’t done that I probably wouldn’t be where I am today. It’s been an extraordinary life because I’ve taken risks; I’m not the conventional executive. I remember when I built M-Pesa, many executives in the company told me I was wasting my time, and everybody thought M-Pesa should exist to make money but it was never my intention to make money. My intention was to change people’s lives for the better.

Q: I remember when I went to Kenya I was very impressed with the queues outside the M-Pesa shops and how much it means to the local people. What is the real impact of M-Pesa in reducing poverty?

MJ: Tavneet Suri, Professor at MIT Business School, has done a study on the impact of M-Pesa on poverty levels and the report concludes that M-Pesa has reduced poverty by 2-5%. M-Pesa helped people to spend their money to buy what they needed, and it also helped them to start their own business, grow their business and create more employment. People can also save money with M-Pesa, they can put as little as 100 Shillings (equivalent to £0.74) in a savings account, get interest on it and withdraw what they need, and it’s all free – this has changed their lives dramatically. When we introduced M-Pesa we had 1.5 million people who would never save, who have now started saving money.

Q: Can you tell us a bit about the M-Pesa Foundation Academy?

MJ: We’re building a high school using funding from the M-Pesa Foundation, the M-Pesa Academy. If you look at what we’ve achieved there it is just phenomenal: you take these kids from nothing, from the bush and you give them a good education and they’re just blossoming. I just love that part of the job.

Q: What would you miss most about the company?

MJ: The people, with no doubt. I will miss them; I will miss the buzz. It’s a great group of people that I’ve been working with for so long. I miss Safaricom a lot.

Q: And how are you in your personal life? Who is Michael?

MJ: You probably should ask my wife (laughs). I’m not an outgoing person at all, I don’t like social functions or formal dinners; I just go to them because I have to. I’m actually a very shy person, I hide behind the ‘maverick persona’ but actually I’m a very private person. I like the simple life, am pretty much a boring guy. I’m also Chairman of the Lewa Wildlife Conservancy in northern Kenya, and l love spending time there and being involved with all activities there – I love wildlife, I am a great conservationist. This is also where my house is, in Lewa [Michael then shows me several pictures of amazing landscapes, with elephants and giraffes just outside his doorstep]

Q: You also started the Lewa marathon project, didn’t you?

MJ: Yes – It started with an idea of people running in a game reserve to raise money. Now we have 1200 people, running on rough roads in the middle of a conservancy, we have helicopter and airplanes to keep the elephants, lions, and buffalos away. It’s a tough race, because it’s up and down hills and it’s very hot. I’ve done the half-marathon a number of times and I’m training for it again. I want to be the oldest guy to finish the marathon! [Michael is 71]

Q: What is the most adventurous thing you’ve done in your life?

MJ: I’ve done lots of little things; I don’t think great adventures… I’ve done kind of game drives, walks in the bush… I decided to go paragliding with John Otty (Regional Finance Director, AMAP), if he can do it I can do it (laughs) then I decided to go for a second time.

Q: You’ve done quite a lot in your life, what do you still want to accomplish?

MJ: Most of my goals now are seeing things, traveling to places that I have never been before. I’d like to see the gorillas; I’d love to go to Rwanda or Congo to see them.

Q: What else is on your list?

MJ: I actually wrote a list of these things once but I can’t remember what they are (laughs). I’ve been sailing and I’d love to learn how to fly too. Actually when I left, Safaricom gave me farewell gifts and one of them was flying lessons, but I never had time to take them. Now I’m trying to slow down a bit to do the things I want to do.

Q: Your wife might be happy she will have more time with you?

MJ: Would she? Oh no, no, no… (laughs) definitely not, she doesn’t need more time with me. My wife is a silversmith, she’s an artist, she thinks completely differently to me. When we arrive at our house in France in the summer, there’s always a lot of things to do e.g cutting the grass etc… but we need to work separately, we can’t work together because we don’t agree on anything! We are both control freaks. She does her thing; I do my thing. I cannot be in control of anything otherwise we just fight (laughs).

Q: If today was the last day of your life, what would do?

MJ: I would probably go home, listen to some music, call my kids, I don’t think I’d do anything dramatically different. When I do die, I’d like to die in Lewa [northern Kenya, where he has a house], that’s definitely what I’d like to do. If anything happens to me, I’d go to Kenya, I’d go to my house in Lewa, and just stay there. It’s such a special place.

Q: Why is Lewa so special to you?

MJ: It’s unspoiled, it’s remote… it’s… just perfect nature [his eyes shine recalling this]. Being on my own there is just such a wonderful experience, it’s a fantastic feeling, you go to bed at night and you can hear all the animals around you. Sometimes it’s completely quiet and sometimes is noisy, it depends on what’s going on with the moon. It’s a just a very special feeling that you are there, part of nature, the views of the mountains are incredible.

Q:P When you look back, are you happy with it all?

MJ: Yes. You have tragedies as well, you know. The week before last week my ex-wife died, and that was really difficult to deal with. I was there in Johannesburg with her, it’s quite sad, but that’s life… when I was much younger I lost my young brother, he was killed in a car accident and he was only 20. These are the kind of tragedies that come around, that everybody goes through, but that is what makes you who you are, it determines your character going forward.

Q: Do you think you’re wiser today?

MJ: Yes definitely – and going to Kenya has completely changed everything. I often tell young people that I went to Kenya when I was 55 years old, I achieved the greatest professional achievement of my life when I was 55, not when I was 35! It does come to you, it doesn’t always come to you in the very beginning though. At that point, 55 years old was the official retirement age at Vodafone.

Q: You never stop… I heard you survived a helicopter crash as well?

MJ: Yes, that’s true, that was in Kenya a couple of years ago. The helicopter lost control and just crashed. The pilot and the others ran away and I was stuck inside as I could not undo my seatbelt and I was still recovering from an operation. We had just refuelled so I was worried about fire. The only person who came to help a local old woman approached with a flask of tea and stared pouring it to stop the engine catching fire. Amazing courage!

Q: Has the time in Kenya been the golden years of your life as a whole?

MJ: Oh yes. Sometimes you look back on your life, you’ve achieved all these things and you ask yourself, was it luck, was it wisdom, what is the combination of circumstances that make you successful? Definitely going to Kenya was the single achievement of my life, in all respects. When the Kenyan government asked me to be Chairman of Kenya Airways – and I know nothing about airlines except that I want to fly them (laughs) – but people expect you to be successful, it’s a great fear actually. This role wasn’t something I wanted to do – my legacy is Safaricom and M-Pesa – taking up a role in an airline that is in deep trouble and helping to turn around a business that you know nothing about, and you’re only the chairman, is not easy.

Q: Why did you take it?

MJ: It’s a new challenge. But also I owe Kenya – it’s a country that is my home, and I think it’s your duty when your president asks you to do something, it’s not for you to question it.

(Paula Nasser is a Senior Global Communications Manager at Vodafone. She first published this post on LinkedIn). 


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